Week 5: Mercury, the Winged Messenger

When first listening to Holst’s Mercury it is difficult not to see the unique relationship between the tempo of the music and the planet’s orbit.  Mercury travels at about 128,000 miles per hour and the tempo can be described as vivace, around 140 beats per minute. Speed alone, is one of the main aspects that tie together the science, music and mythology of collective Mercury.

Mercury, the winged messenger or Hermes (in Greek mythology) is known as the winged messenger as well as the inventor of many sports.  He is known inventing many types of racing, wrestling and boxing and was thus known as the patron to athletes.  At his birthplace, known as the base of Mount Cyllene, a cult who worshipped Hermes would put on a festival called Hermaea, where multiple athletic competitions took place.  Interestingly, he escorted the deceased to Hades in the underworld and was the son of Zeus.  Overall, Mercury is known for being a particularly fast and obedient G-d.

The music Holst created to personify Mercury is chillingly similar to the perceived personality of Mercury.  Much of the piece’s mood can be described as scherzando, meaning the composition is fast moving yet at some places playful like leggiero.  The broken chords give some visualization of runners darting out from the start line and the competition restless until the end of the piece.   At some point in the class, it was mentioned to us that Mercury’s orbit was somehow related to its tempo with amazing accuracy.  I find it incredible that Holst manage to emulate such an appropriate tempo for this mysterious planet.

The planet itself is very interesting, from its drastic temperature changes to its moon like attributes and very fast orbit around the sun.  Mercury is the second to smallest planet known in our solar system with many attributes similar to the moon orbiting Earth.  Mercury’s surface has many craters and mare-like plains, and is thought to be a nearly dead planet.  An interesting parallel between Mercury’s temperature and mythology is the concept of extremes.  Mercury is able to get as a high as 600K (330⁰C) and as low as 100K (-173⁰C).  Mercury, or Hermes in Greek mythology, was known for spending time in the underworld, interpreted as cold, scary and dark as well as on Mt. Olympus, interpreted as warm, enlightening and bright.  During portions of the orbit Mercury will be very hot or very cold and some in between.  Though the music does not quite tie into this curious parallel, it is definitely apparent when analyzing the planet and the mythology.  Again the speed of Mercury’s orbit relates to the mythological aspect as well as the musical, all are fast.

In all, Holst was yet again able to recreate a musical embodiment of Mercury, the Winged Messenger.  The light playful melodic tempo reflects the uppity nature of Mercury’s position in space and on Mount Olympus.  Though the music did not quite capture the interesting temperature increases and decreases it still managed to achieve one the impossible aspects of the planet’s orbit; its speed.  For Holst’s time, it would have been nearly impossible for him to know this fascinating unifying concept of collective Mercury, but somehow he managed to completely incarnate it to music.  Overall, I loved it.